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Progressive activists may not agree on much, but there is a broad consensus that capitalism and its attack on the earth and its people has to be stopped. To do this, we have to organize differently. Somehow.
In the wake of global social uprisings that have emerged over the past three years, old models relied upon by progressives are being re-imagined by new and old activists alike.
Occasionally, opportunities emerge for activists to get together: individuals mix with union presidents; sectors interact; regions break apart.
This was the backdrop for the Canada-Québec-First Nations social forum, hosted by Alternatives from January 26-27.
In a lecture hall at the University of Ottawa, more than 120 people, many representing more than 80 organizations, gathered to discuss the utility of social forums as tools for social change.
The forum began with presentations from Jeremie Bédard-Wien from ASSE and Russell Diabo. Diabo talked about the role of Indigenous activism in progressive struggles. Bédard-Wien linked the lessons of the Québec student movement to broader organizing against neoliberalism, in Québec and across Canada.
Jessica Gordon and Sheelah McLean, two of the four Saskatoon-based activists who co-founded Idle No More discussed the challenges and successes that have emerged from the Idle No More movement.
Each of these presentations offered inspiring stories of social movements, politicization, enfranchisement and empowerment.
The most impressive aspect of the social forum was the high participation of Indigenous activists from nations across Turtle Island. Many people remarked that it had been the best participation of Indigenous people in a non-Indigenous-organized event they had ever seen.
Alternatives hosted the forum to solicit the involvement of the diverse group in planning a future, larger social forum. Participants were presented with three visions of possible organizing models, each that extended beyond a social forum alone.
Alternatives staff argued that the social forum model, with a parallel forum of social movement organizations, was the next step necessary to continue this process. While there was some disagreement about whether or not a social forum needed to have a parallel structure, activists generally welcomed the opportunity for discussion that comes with a social forum structure.
Anil Naidoo and Gary Neil presented about Common Causes, an initiative lead by the Council of Canadians and several national unions. Through this network of progressive organizations, they plan to organize online and on the ground to defeat Harper in 2015. Again, activists generally agreed that this group could create an important organizing space for progressive organizing.
The third model emerged from another convergence of progressive groups hosted by the Canadian Autoworkers in November. Called the Port Elgin meeting, organizers brought together activists from social movements and labour to identify new ways of working together. With an emphasis on grassroots organizing, one of the working groups established in Port Elgin proposed that a broad coalition structure should both centralize and decentralize organizing across Canada.
While the Port Elgin process was somewhat vague and confusing, activists also generally agreed that such a network could be an important space for progressive organizing.
Unfortunately, the forum did not provide mechanisms for voting or to discuss these options in smaller workshops, so much of the response to the proposals were aired in plenary-style interventions from the floor, or informal and caucus discussions.
Despite the lack of an inclusive debate structure, poor facilitation, an obtuse, consistent refusal to properly ensure gender parity and the last-minute meetings that many people could not attend, the social forum brought people together so that ideas and approaches can collide, mix and hopefully evolve a political project into an effective strategy.
The emergence of the three models as non-competitive, complimentary progressive strategies was the final result of the weekend. Rather than raging debates about which model is more useful, activists tried to better understand how these models should be interpreted.
Perhaps backwards, activists who are interested in these initiatives will have to identify the common goals if any of these are going to be a success. As identification of common goals was not embedded into the program of the weekend, this work will have to continue online, over Skype and at blogs, like rabble.ca.
What activists who were present at either the Port Elgin meeting or this weekend’s social forum will have to figure out will be how to actualize the discussions that have been had.
It wasn't clear how to engage with these processes now that the social forum has ended. But, as always, the work continues.